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Looking forward

Leading figures in higher education share their hopes and fears for 2021

Nancy Rothwell, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester and chair of the Russell Group

Fears: This is not the place in which any of us would have hoped or wanted to begin the new year of 2021, as many parts of the world face growing infections from Covid-19 and harsh restrictions on almost all aspects of our lives. My fear, shared by many, is that this will continue for very many months to come and will further widen the gap of inequalities in our societies.

Hopes: My hope is of course that vaccination, brought about by amazing research and deployment, will at least let us return to a largely normal way of life.

Beyond that, I hope we have learned some important lessons from the pandemic that should be long remembered: agility and adaptability in response to ever-changing circumstances, resilience in the face of adversity and—particularly important for research—the value of partnership and collaboration. International research collaborations will be essential in tackling the biggest global challenges we face, including climate change and net zero, global pandemics, inequalities and limited resources.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union

Fears: That universities and the government do not learn the lessons of 2020. Last year, higher education staff worked tirelessly to support students during the Covid pandemic, responding to ever-changing guidelines as their colleagues and students went in and out of self-isolation.

Unfortunately, we also saw the weaknesses of a higher education system predicated on fees. And we have seen over 50,000 cases of Covid on campuses since students were encouraged to return to in-person teaching last summer. Too many institutions used the crisis to make staff redundant when they should have been protected, with staff on casualised contracts often treated as disposable.

Hopes: That this year the government and university management put staff and students first. There can be no return to in-person teaching until it is safe to do so. Instead, resources need to go to staff so they can deliver the best possible remote learning experience, and more needs to be done to support staff and student mental health.

The University and College Union will continue to work with universities to make the case that the costs that higher education has borne due to Covid should be underwritten by the government. Likewise, we will always try to work with management to improve teaching and learning conditions. But when jobs or health are at risk, we will do all we can to support our members, including balloting for industrial action. Ultimately, the UCU believes we need to treat education as a public good that should be publicly financed.

Tony Strike, university secretary of the University of Sheffield

Fears: First, that a post-Brexit, post-Covid economy will impede structural social mobility and that universities will be held responsible for failing to meet ambitious access and employability goals set in a different time.

Then, with the continued separation in government of the role of universities between education and research, I fear that no-one in government understands that research-intensives teach what they discover. Our sector has fallen into an individualist, transactional model of education funding and delivery, treating students as consumers and universities as ‘big school’, and a collective national approach to research, conveniently ignoring that the same computational and biochemists, mathematical and economic modellers and virologists who are aiding the fight against Covid are also the best teachers of the next generation in centres of global excellence.

Hopes: That the Office for Students can reduce its regulatory burden, as it promises, while facing the greater challenge of how to show value and impact. The OfS is defending its role in a sector that seemingly managed perfectly well before. It seeks justification in representing students’ interests, while necessarily assuming that universities don’t and ignoring the students’ unions. At the same time, an OfS that is bypassed by frustrated ministers regularly writing directly to vice-chancellors is unsustainable.

Having lobbied against it and then prepared for it, I also hope to be proven wrong about Brexit.

Graeme Atherton, head of AccessHE and director of the National Education Opportunities Network

Hopes: The pandemic has made it even clearer that the country is riven by deep-rooted social and economic inequality. The idea of levelling up, while cumbersome and in need of refinement, at least retains a focus on these inequalities.

My hope for 2021 is that higher education is seen by the government and the sector itself as part of this levelling-up agenda. The government has an opportunity to do this early in the year by committing to the long-term future of the Uni Connect programme, the national collaborative outreach programme in England, which is reaching 200,000 young people a year from disadvantaged backgrounds. Funding for Uni Connect is only assured until July. There are proposals from the Office for Students for Uni Connect funding to be extended until 2025 and these need to be supported by the Department for Education.

Fears: It is crucial that, in the midst of the struggle to cope with the challenges of the pandemic to teaching and research, higher education does not lose sight of the importance of widening access and participation. Universities must continue to invest in outreach work even though schooling is likely to remain disrupted throughout 2021.

Existing gaps in achievement and outcomes related to ethnicity, disability and socioeconomic background risk being exacerbated by the disruption to teaching in higher education. Institutional strategies to address these inequalities have to become an even higher priority.

Anton Muscatelli, economist and principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Glasgow

Hopes: My first reaction is a straightforward one: I hope 2021 is better than 2020. In terms of broader reasons to be cheerful, the development of vaccines underscores the importance of international collaboration and R&D.

On the former, I am optimistic that a change in leadership in the United States will help to ease global trade and diplomacy. With the latter, I hope policymakers take steps to further support the UK’s innovation ecosystem in our international collaborations. I also hope that this period has taught us to be a little more compassionate and understanding and that this enables society to make further progress in tackling socioeconomic inequalities, particularly those that have been so cruelly exposed during the pandemic.

Fears: Beyond the nightmare scenario of a Covid variant that interferes with vaccine effectiveness, I worry about how the pandemic is impacting younger generations. From a higher education perspective, we must continue to work hard and think innovatively about how we can best support our student populations and those aspiring to a place at university. I also remain concerned about the impact of Brexit and the ever-accumulating mountain of government debt around the world.

Matt Crilly, president of the National Union of Students Scotland

Fears: Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have been working with student representatives across the country to make the case for emergency support for students. Students have told us that money is one of their biggest concerns. My fear is that the ongoing disruption means students are struggling to make ends meet.

Hopes: That every student will have access to the financial, emotional and digital support they need to succeed. For too long, students have had to get by on cost-of-living support that doesn’t keep up with the cost of learning.

Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK

Fears: Universities are facing another period of uncertainty and challenges, fully aware of issues that need to be worked through with government to manage the situation effectively: the need for financial support for students and institutions; regulatory flexibility; ensuring we can continue to do all we can to help our students progress through their studies, graduate on time and find fulfilling employment; and supporting those who will be starting higher education courses later in the year after a period of disrupted education.

Hopes: Our universities have been front and centre in the fight against coronavirus and I hope that this will continue to be recognised.